Bob Karakashian… ‘Mr Six Pack’
by Terry Cooper
In 1969 an upgrade to the already legendary ‘HEMI’ engine meant serious spending.... King Kong wasn’t bought with a few more bananas. If you wanted to rule your portion of the asphalt jungle you had to ante up almost 1/3 the value of the entire car. That’s right, on average the hemi package in new ‘69s were close to a thousand bucks on top of, and above, the almost $3000 price tag. Needless to say, that kind of ‘extra’ put the kibosh on many a young musclecar dream.
But this cost dynamic had a part in its legend building. The Hemi, being a budget buster, made it a rare sight on the streets simply because young people couldn’t afford it. So hemi notoriety, well earned through performance, was also enhanced through scarcity. As much as Mopar enjoyed the attention, ‘scarce’ was not a word those in sales wanted to hang their employment hopes on. So it was up to Chrysler’s hi-po engineers to provide a more affordable car for their new nation of hemi followers. A ‘young consumer answer’ was needed. Lucky for Mopar they had engineers worthy of the task. Luckier still for young nation member Bob Karakashian, one of those engineers resided a stones throw from his front door.
1969 Was A Special Year, But Before We Get To It, Let’s Unfold The Backdrop
The Karakashians lived in a Detroit middle class subdivision about a block from the Tom Hoover residence. Proximity made it efficient for Bob to take the pathway by the Hoover house on his way in and out of the neighborhood. In 1963, as a 13 year old, he noticed a car with an unusual paint job in the driveway. The reverent buzz on the grapevine explained its importance. Right there in all it’s glory, parked as if it was the family grocery getter, was the ‘Ramchargers’ car which had just won the 1963 NHRA Nationals.
A Pause For A Little Reflection
How many times have we heard of youthful car encounters triggering lifetime commitments to those cars? It happens all the time. Almost everyone can trace back to a particular pre license age when they were completely captivated by a certain car. This particular encounter with the Ramchargers car was perhaps the mother of them all as it planted a deep desire within one very special young man. It not only triggered Bob’s lifelong dedication to mopars, but through the resulting friendship with Tom the ability to pass help on to others. That meeting between Bob Karakashian and Tom Hoover’s 1963 Ramchargers proved to be a future blessing for many.
Back to Unfolding
Two years later, in 1965, Ralph Nadar presented his new book ‘Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed in Dangers of the American Automobile’. As you can imagine, the auto industry was not amused. Despite the lack of respect given to Nadar's effort, it was an important part of the early misguided movement to dumb down factory performance. Young people, unaware of any such movement, were of course completely consumed with speed. Bob’s older brother, one such young man, had just ordered a 1965 426 street wedge car from the local Dodge dealer.
A few weeks before the car was delivered something besides big brother coercing prompted now 15 year old Bobby Karakashian to finally introduce himself to Ramcharger Tom Hoover. As difficult as that was for a young man to muster the courage, it proved to be worth the risk. Hoovers gracious demeanor carried the day. Tom spent 2 hours reviewing speed secrets with Bob. During that initial meeting Hoover pulled out a complete max wedge exhaust system as the first key to improving performance. He also insisted that Bob and his brother bring the new car around for further help. This turned out to be only the beginning of Hoover’s generosity.
Later that year, months before the new ‘66 HEMI was to be released, Tom brought what must’ve been a pilot car home from work. Those keys to the first ‘66 Plymouth street Hemi were casually tossed in the air to Bob’s brother as a request for their ‘opinion’. Once out on an open stretch, the car was punched from a 30 roll which immediately began sideways tire frying. It was like nothing Bob or his brother had ever experienced. When they got back to Hoovers the smiles provided all the opinion needed. At this point 16 year old Bob was completely hooked on high performance Mopars.
Over those years leading up to 1969 the Hoover driveway was home for one special Mopar after another. As mentioned earlier the 426 Hemi was busy establishing itself as king within the very competitive musclecar jungle. In 1966 Tom ordered a Coronet street Hemi as a family car. After all, the ‘hemi’ was becoming the weapon of choice, so those on the Mopar front lines armed themselves accordingly. Later in ‘68 Chrysler was flirting with a Hemi Road Runner limited production car which would have side exhausts (like TA/AAR cars), 8 inch wheels on all fours, the number 43 on the door– and of course Petty blue paint. This was one of Bob’s favorite prototypes, which unfortunately got the axe later that year.
Old School In Session
During this period Bob became Tom’s student in training with the back addition behind the garage serving as classroom. Tom knowing about the regular route through the neighborhood developed a signal system for his student. Long before cell phones, back when communication was an art form, he would leave certain lights on and doors unlocked. This would indicate to the passing student whether or not school was ‘in or out of session’. Schooling over those years involved test and tune as well as custom fabrication work. One session included the first prostock tunnel ram intake manifold welded by Tom with Bob holding the tubing.
1968 brought with it his first year in college. In those days big brother’s ‘65 wedge Coronet was borrowed for transportation, but a dedicated car was required for college commuting. If you haven’t figured this out yet, imagine the environment this kid has grown up in. A cool big brother providing the guidance for walking the Mopar muscle road, then he befriends the man who actually paved the road. Yep, he was lucky to have that kind of exposure. But intellect and ability to understand mechanical tech, allowed him to hang in there when professor Hoover, with no short answers, explained the many variations of creative horsepower. Even with the gap in years they both seemed to speak the same language. The mentor had found an apprentice. Bobby Karakashian was the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
So in ‘69 the question remained- what to drive to college every day. Chrysler was offering 383’s or 440’s with four barrels or there was the almighty Hemi with ‘dual quads’. The 383 and 440 didn’t seem to fit his needs.... and who would think they would after being exposed to the kind of iron found in the Hoover driveway and garage! The Hemi, just as fitting as it could be, was completely out of financial reach. Then one day Mr. Hoover said to Bob, “I think we are going to have a car you are going to like.”
The New A12 Package
Hoover then unwrapped the A12 package car to his listener.... They’d be equipped with 440 motors under three two-barrel carbs. They’d have Hemi suspension components and sport fiberglass hoods crowned with a very serious scoop. In a nutshell Hoover thought this car would give Hemi performance without Hemi cost or Hemi maintenance. This was the ‘young consumer answer’ Chrysler needed, which of course sounded pretty good to young consumer Bob. The next day he went to South Point Dodge in Lincoln Park, Michigan and ordered his new Dodge A12. Bob’s own words on how that transpired:
“...This dealership was quite a ways away from our home, but a close relative of ours worked as a salesman there. I sat down ready to order my new Super Bee in black with an automatic transmission and thought everything was just fine, only to be told that A12 cars were special and could not be ordered in black....they only came in four colors. Upon hearing this news I began to scramble for another color choice. I asked to see the color chart for the four colors available and my salesman began to tell me that there isn’t one. Now what do I do? He explains the four colors to me like this. The first one is like a taxi cab yellow and mustard, the second one is electric green, the third one is orange like a pumpkin, and the fourth is bright red....I think you would like the bright red. “Ok, bright red it will be”, were the first words out of my mouth. I didn’t want a simple color choice to delay my order any longer than needed!
Now that this was out of the way, all the paperwork was filled out and my deposit was given I get the bad news. My salesman tells me that the A12 cars were very special and the order could take between six and eight weeks to receive. I knew it would take a while, but how could a 19 year-old guy wait eight weeks to receive his dream car? Well, time went by and about seven or eight weeks later my salesman tells me that there is still no word on my car. Now up until this time I still had never seen what an A12 car looked like. I knew what a regular Super Bee looked like, but not an A12 with a black fiberglass hood, and bright red color. What seemed to be an eternity finally ended when my salesman called and said my car was built. He offered the choice of picking the car up at the Lynch Road plant, or having it shipped to the dealer for normal delivery. Unfortunately I chose the latter, as at the time I just wanted my car. It had been about 10 weeks since my order was first placed.
My brother and dad went with me to pick up my car. The first thing my dad said was that they forgot my hubcaps. After trying to explain to him that the car was not supposed to have any, my father could not understand why I would buy such a car. Regardless, I remember driving home from the dealership as proud as any new car owner would be...”
Revisiting the backdrop, it’s now the summer of 1969 and the movement to dumb down factory high performance is in full swing. After almost a decade of ever expanding horsepower Nadar has successfully intimidated the largest automobile corporations in the world. They’re backing away from competitively based power and speed challenges, shifting focus instead to safety. The musclecar wars of the 60s were about to end. Chrysler’s hi-po engineers realized the A12 would be perhaps their last effort....so they were going to let everything ride on it. Here’s an account of that moment as offered by A12 historian Mike Rosso:
“Lore has it that in early fall of 1968 the son of a Chrysler hi-po engineer took an experimental ‘68 440 6 barrel GTX to a Woodward Road hangout. There a GM engineer or representative supposedly saw the 3x2's inciting a panic rush at Chrysler to avoid a GM upstaging. The story was this project was supposed to be a '70 release but the Woodward incident accelerated it into Spring of '69.
This (again as lore has it) was the real reason for utilizing the Edlebrock aluminum manifolds on the A12- because they could simply manufacture them quicker (which of course proved later to be half true due to production defects).
Quick was also reflected in the fiberglass hood design which included a minimally engineered non closing scoop- unlike the ‘Ramcharger Air Induction System’ or the ‘Air Grabber’ mechanically operated systems of the day. Mr. Dick Maxwell, integral project engineer for the A12, relayed the following about the rush: “We had trouble convincing upper management that we could use the non-closing hood scoop for production without weather related problems. To expedite their blessing, and prove that a heavy rain storm wouldn’t shut the engine down, another engineer and I hosed the hood down with garden hoses while another guy ran the car on rollers at about half throttle for 30-minutes. We proved our point”
But as mentioned earlier ‘the rush’ was being fueled by another source of urgency, something far bigger than inner industry competition. Nadar, had just left a mark on GM via a successful lawsuit- which in turn financed his witch hunt into all American auto manufacturers. The government had fully embraced the independent ‘Nadar’s Raiders’ and were moving to implement across the board auto safety standards. By ‘69 pollution control was becoming another ‘issue’....(and if that wasn’t enough there was a crippling oil [gasoline] ‘energy crisis’ looming. Unbeknownst to anyone Americans would soon be swapping US built V-8's for fuel efficient Japanese 4 cylinders).
The Last Hurrah
Maxwell, aware of the deteriorating situation went on to explain the following: “We knew our time was running out with all of the Federal regulations closing in on us and I can say this now but I couldn’t say this back then; “We just wanted to build the last bad ass street car that we could before we got shut down!” So successful were their efforts that once the A12 went to sales, NHRA officials called Chrysler regularly hounding them for specs in order to determine the class it should run in (hence part of the reason for the 390 rated HP). Maxwell repeatedly told NHRA officials it wasn’t meant to race NHRA, finally forcing a formal letter of clarification from Tom Hoover.
So as Bob took delivery of his new A12 Super Bee, the automobile world was starting to change from the top down. But the young people of the era, who by now had been hooked on faster more powerful factory cars each year, were not so easily turned off. With all the addictions found within the ‘counter culture’ of the ‘60s, potent street muscle offered its own intoxicating fix. Make no mistake, there was a generation of young Americans addicted to ‘street speed’ with ‘Motor City’ Detroit acting as the distribution hub. Again, Bob Karakashian was literally smack dab in the middle of it, rubbing elbows with the kingpins.
In ‘69 he was still the student who helped around Tom’s backyard speed shop, but was spending time in college too. At that time Tom and Ron Mancini had a ‘69 440 GTS Dart called the ‘Detroit Beeleaver’ built for NHRA competition. It was just another in the long list of special cars getting special treatment at the Hoover residence. After years of watching all the hi-po design and build on these cutting edge race cars, Bob now had a car of his own to work on....and Tom had a secret mule for street testing.
The Test Mule
“...My car had 1400 miles on it when Tom recommended that I take off the heads and mill them 0.060 inch to increase performance. We agreed at this time we might as well change the camshaft also. These changes made the car very fast and everything we did was solid information off which Chrysler could feed. As time went on Tom had many changes he wanted me to perform, so the information-providing machine never stopped. Probably the single most unbelievable part of this equation was that all the changes Tom or Chrysler wanted me to perform- worked every time, perfectly...”
To amplify more on this period of time Bob’s good friend Paul Petcou:
“When Bob had 1400 miles on his car Mr Hoover sent him down to Spehars Garage on Woodward Avenue to get some trans work done. Ted Spehar was the head engine builder for the Motown Missile race program and the garage was nothing less than Chryslers off site race shop. Silver Bullet owner Jimmy Addison also worked there. It was to be sure a major hangout for heavy hitting mopars. Bob’s car had been tuned with Tom’s help and was just getting the trans work done when it caught the attention of one of the heavy hitters. Before Bob could get the car home he was challenged to a race. So this 18 year old kid, on the way out the door with his fresh untested shift kit, is lined up at the nearest red light against one of the most feared mopars on Woodward. The light turns green and Bob cleans his clock. Of course Bob was very happy with this, went home, where not long after Hoover calls him from work. Congratulations were in order. Tom wanted the details since the buzz from this race had quickly reached Chrysler having all of Highland Park on fire.
From there Bob began testing for Chrysler as a back door mule. This included camshaft and miscellaneous trans alterations. He did a lot of the developmental test work that’s found in the old ‘Direct Connection’ and current ‘Mopar Performance’ publications. In fact Bob’s tested most, if not all of the camshafts in the old ‘Mopar Performance’ catalogs, did gear swaps, carbureting jetting tips, all developed on his A12 Bee. Now he didn’t necessarily do all those changes himself, they would meet at Milan where Chrysler would rent the track, and they’d have their race team there which included the likes of carb expert John Bauman and others. Included were the ‘Motown Missile’, and the ‘Sox and Martin’ cars to name a few. They’d do actual cam swaps right there and have these guys evaluate them. Bob’s car has a well worn upper rad support as evidence of the numerous ‘fast flush’ coolant exchanges. This minimized cool down time allowing 6-8 swaps a day. Through this testing he helped develop the parts found on shelves back in the early 70s. Using this information Bob held the IHRA National Championship for 3 years. He absolutely imbedded the early reputation for six packs- it got peoples attention quick and he’s had deep roots with Chrysler ever since…”
Speaking of Chrysler, this recent quote from David Hakim current director of ‘Mopar Performance’: “Bob Karakasian is probably the sharpest guy on the planet today with six pack cars in pure stock or mild form”… The current Mopar Performance catalog includes a picture of Bob (see below).
Bob remained active in IHRA racing until the early 80s. In the mid 80s NHRA ‘Super Car Showdowns’ started with him being there to help promote the new format. The ‘Showdowns’ allowed ‘sticky’ drag radials within stock formats. In one of the memorable early events at Quaker City Bob found himself paired against Jim Mino’s Ram Air II Firebird. The field had been reduced from close to 100 cars. In the last 2 rounds it was Bob and Jim with Jim’s Firebird giving 3 tenths to the Super Bee. Just before the last race Bob broke the neck on his B&M shifter (aftermarket shifters were allowed). Exhausting all possible repair efforts Bob’s good friend Huey was sent off to the local hardware store for an answer…. When the tree lit up Bob was sitting on the line with three pairs of vice grips and a roll of electrical tape holding everything together. 12.80 later the Super Bee finished first winning the event. The crowd went wild. After the race accusations led to both cars being torn down for cam and port clarification...to which both cars passed.
The 90s - Mr Six Pack Cams
In the early 90s, after decades of camshaft experience, he wanted an alternative to the ‘Chevy core’ problem. In a nutshell major camshaft manufacturers were using cam cores designed for Chevy/GM cars in their Mopar offerings. Chevy/GMs have an 842 lifter diameter, Fords an 875 and Mopars a 904. Why grind a mopar cam on a core designed for another manufacturer? It sounds crazy but Crane and Comp (who make Mopar Performance cams) start with 842 Chevy cores. This definitely impacts throttle response and overall performance. Bob’s cams start as true 904 mopar lobes before adding his grind. Several successful A12 or six pack cars now in PSMCDR utilize Bob’s cam which develops power from taming lift not exaggerating it. At the 2005 A12 Reunion, in the midst of the busy day with commotion everywhere, I’ll never forget being alerted to the synchronicity of a subtle background purr. The quiet rhythm cut through the din like a knife. In its own unobtrusive way the idle of Bob’s car was deafening. But don’t let ‘tame’ fool you… it’s very, very effective. At a Martin event in 2006, 4 of the fastest 8 cars there were Mopars. It’s no mistake that all 4 of those Mopars were in some way influenced by Bob’s cam or his personal tuning help.
Not to be lost in the skill of racing, or engineering savvy is the heart of the matter… Bob’s heart. Paul Petcou points out that Bob was there from the beginning to be a positive influence in the maturing of pure stock racing. By that he means a respected voice in developing fair rules which encourage ‘clean cars’. Anything less would lead to those racers who play fair not wanting to participate, which would in turn quickly relegate the sport to one of money, not skill. Bob’s presence was a steadying factor in PSMCDR. His sense of fair play has always been beyond reproach, which is obvious in his demeanor and willingness to help others. In fact many of those associated with FAST initially viewed Bob’s PSMCDR affiliation as possibly adversarial. They now count him as a friend who openly shared his years of experience for their collective benefit. Someone who frequents the tracks recently stated with accuracy…“Bob will help you figure out how to beat Bob”, illustrating just how far the man will go. His heart has always been to help, especially those within the Mopar family….a familiar ingrained theme still bleeding through from the days with Hoover.
Far Reaching Influence
As magnanimous as his influence in racing is, it doesn’t end there. Consider the recent increase in A12 values. For decades these cars were promoted by Bob- first with Mr Hoover’s guidance on the street, then later at countless race tracks. While that exposure certainly isn’t solely responsible for the current state of A12 affluence, it certainly didn’t hurt. Bob has held the A12 flag high since the very beginning on both the street, and at the track. His influence is literally everywhere, most importantly on the hearts of those who have received his help.
So when you look back at how these cars gained prominence within the broad muscle car arena you can’t help but see Bob Karakashian as a major influence. That influence is still active today in all the ways outlined above. With thanks of course to the neighbor who parked his 63 Ramchargers car in the driveway…. where the kid down the street couldn’t miss it.
Note: It’s important to point out that this long overdue recognition was done despite Bob’s initial objections. Humility being a dominant trait, it wasn’t easy gathering information from him. Special thanks to his family and friends who helped provide much of the substance for this article.